Rethinking Australian tertiary education?

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Following the federal coalition government’s re-election maybe it’s time to make some important decisions about the future of tertiary education?

That’s what is being proposed in the most recent publication from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute anyway.

Rethinking and revitalising tertiary education

In this most recent of the Mitchell Institute’s papers, Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Peter Dawkins and VET stalwart Peter Noonan, together with Peter Hurley, have produced a paper entitled ‘Rethinking and revitalising tertiary education in Australia’. As we look at what they have proposed we might – somewhat flippantly – call them the ‘Peters’ Principles’.

The need to take a look at this now is because, as they point out, “the dichotomy between higher education and VET, and lack of coherence across the tertiary sector has, if anything, become starker” because of disjointed policy. Moreover, “overall participation in tertiary education has been in decline, because of a decline in participation in VET.”

This requires reforming action by the responsible federal ministers and their state and territory counterparts.

What rethinking is needed?

Rethinking tertiary education means trying to be more innovative so that the tertiary sector can meet the needs of its increasingly diverse student cohort and respond to changing ways of working and labour market needs. This requires a more integrated  approach that breaks down the existing boundaries between academic and vocational education.

Dawkins and his colleagues believe that this will be achieved, in part, by reforming tertiary curricula, particularly VET’s, to “broaden the skills and capabilities of its students to better prepare them to adapt to a changing world, and to articulate into higher programs with more ease and more credit.” This will mean rethinking VET’s competency-based model which, they believe, “has squeezed broader-based skills and capabilities to the margins of the curriculum,” hinders the development of tertiary pathways, and may not be really giving employers what they want either.

Another ‘rethinking’ requires entry requirements and pathways into and through tertiary education to be liberalised and diversified “to [better] recognise the diversity of knowledge, skills and capabilities students bring to tertiary education, besides their ATAR score.”

Finally, they propose extending the use of work-based learning and industry partnerships and more local approaches to the tertiary sector’s offerings to encourage providers to collaborate more with industry to improve local relevance and pathways.

How can tertiary education be revitalised?

Revitalisation will require both federal and state governments to give very serious thought to increasing their investment in tertiary education, the authors believe. They propose:

“a more comprehensive system of income contingent loans across VET and higher education that remove the up-front fees that many VET students currently face.”

Funding approaches also need to be fair and sustainable.

They also suggest using a mixture of VET and higher education pathways to reduce costs, but this would have the added advantage of improving credit and articulation arrangements. This should be coupled with:

“an increase in “micro learning” (that provides credit towards AQF qualifications) to ensure cost-effective upgrading of skills in the workforce.”

Industry should lift its investment in educating and training its employees, they maintain.

The key to all of these proposals is to rethink comprehensively both the tertiary sector’s operational approaches and its funding arrangements and levels. It also requires that the incentives to shift costs between the Commonwealth and states be removed. They propose adopting Noonan’s ‘co-funding model’ and that the Commonwealth assume responsibility for funding all AQF level 5 and 6 courses or “courses where credit-based learning pathways are negotiated between VET and higher education providers.”

A return on an increased investment in tertiary education?

Dawkins and his colleagues argue that the reforms they propose should increase public and private returns to education and training, encourage greater participation in tertiary education, enhance the workforce, and promote economic growth while reducing the social costs of unemployment and underemployment.

Finally, they believe that these initiatives would, in turn:

“generate more tax revenue for government and reduce its expenditure in dealing with unemployment and underemployment.” And so “This would justify an increased investment in tertiary education and training by governments, without imposing a fiscal burden.”

Rethinking Australian tertiary education? | VDC